“This is the letter ‘A.’ Who knows a word beginning with A?” “Airplane!” the young pupils cry out together in a makeshift school in Aazaz, a northern Syrian town devastated by aerial bombardment.
Khadijeh, 14, proudly displays the notebook, pencil and eraser provided to her by the school this autumn.
On the cover page, she has drawn flags of the Syrian revolution and amid flowers and hearts has also written slogans against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, prey to an unprecedented revolt for the past year and a half.
“My school was bombed but this one is even better, even though we have no chairs or desks,” she says, still smiling.
At one time, rebels battling the regime took up residence in schools in the area, leading to their subsequent targeting and destruction by the security forces.
“What would I do at home anyway? I much prefer to be here and learn,” chimes in 12-year-old Zakiyyeh, Khadijeh’s neighbour, who like all of her peers has donned her best clothing to come to school at the start of the new academic year.
With a white lace scarf covering her hair, Khadijeh talks about her future. “I want to become a doctor to help people,” she says.
Others have even greater ambitions, like 13-year-old Ismail.
He has already learned how to say “hello” and “please” in his English class, and has no intention of stopping there. One day he wants to be a minister in the government.
“Any minister, interior, foreign… I don’t mind,” he says seriously.
Aged from six to 15 and divided into small non-mixed classes of 20, the children sit on the floor facing small whiteboards. Around 100 schoolchildren altogether, listening attentively to the lesson of the day.
The youngest recite the Arabic alphabet while others ponder mathematics exercises, learn basic English or read the Koran.
Ahmed Karkubi — a former rebel who left the front line after being wounded to return to his profession as a teacher — oversees three makeshift schools.
Each school operates in two sessions, with the first group of pupils two hours in the morning, and the second two hours in the afternoon.
He says that 1,000 students have enrolled for the new school year in Aazaz, which before the conflict was home to 70,000 people.
Every afternoon, Karkubi also brings meals to the children in his pick-up truck.
“It’s been a long time since they were in school — they may forget everything. This is why we have restarted classes,” he says.
Haneen al-Jebbine, 18, would normally be at university.
But she has been unable to attend classes for some time because of the shelling and the suppression of the student movement in Aleppo, the largest city in northern Syria, some 60 kilometres (35 miles) away from Aazaz.
Since she cannot attend classes herself, she has decided to give them instead. Today, she is teaching verses from the Koran to a group of attentive young girls.
She responded to a call from her colleague Abu al-Fattah, 28, who is constantly on the lookout for more teachers to achieve an ambitious objective: “To train the generation of liberty and dignity to represent modern Syria.”
For the teachers and students who share his common vision, this means a Syria free from the rule of Assad, the president “who bombs schools.”